Modesta Tadeo and her four children moved from Mexico to join her husband in Chesterfield County three years ago. Depending on where you fall politically, the family of immigrants is either "undocumented" or "illegal." They don't have Social Security numbers, but last Thursday night they stopped by Ramsey Memorial United Methodist Church on Hull Street Road to pay their taxes.
They started paying taxes three years ago, Tadeo says through an interpreter while waiting in line with her husband and nephew. At first, just pulling all the documents together was nerve-racking. Now it's routine, and not just for them.
"Many people are paying their taxes," Tadeo says.
For four years Ramsey Memorial has hosted tax preparation clinics staffed with bilingual volunteers. Tanya Gonzalez, head of Richmond's Hispanic Liaison Office, helps organize the sites as part of a larger regional effort headed up by the Greater Richmond Earned Income Tax Credit Coalition.
"For the IRS, legal status and working are two separate things," Gonzalez says. When people who don't have Social Security numbers come in, volunteers help them register for an ITIN, or individual tax identification number, allowing them to file with the IRS. The IRS does not share information with federal immigration enforcement agencies.
Gonzalez says they prepare returns for roughly 150 families each year. She's seen a slow increase since the program started, but perhaps more telling has been the rise of people coming in who already have ITIN numbers from previous years.
"That means people are putting roots down," Gonzalez says.
Last summer's federal immigration reform bill might also be encouraging the response. Although the bill failed, it included a provision that would have required evidence that the person had been paying taxes as part of the application for citizenship. Juan Santacoloma, Chesterfield's Hispanic liaison, is betting that future legislation will contain similar language. "Many people are paying taxes now for later," he says.
The ITIN sign-up effort comes as mixed news to John Kwapisz, media and legislative coordinator for the Virginia chapter of the American Council for Immigration Reform.
"Paying the taxes is a desirable effort of course," Kwapisz says. "On the other hand, assisting the illegals in ways that encourage them to stay or to come here is a bad thing, because the more [illegal immigrants] we have, the more problems we're going to be facing in the future."
The growing market for bilingual tax preparation and help with ITIN sign-up for those without Social Security numbers has not gone unnoticed. H&R Block touts its bilingual services and even ran an ad featuring a pair of flamenco dancers flouncing in to the tax preparer's office.
It's also opened a niche for fraud, warns Paz Ochs, who works with Gonzalez in the city's Hispanic Liaison Office. She says they've put together fliers alerting taxpayers about scam preparers who take advantage of people unfamiliar with the tax system and unable to check paperwork filled out in English.
"It's even worse for a lot of immigrants who have applied for residency or citizenship [when] there's a really big IRS snafu," Ochs says. After all, "no one wants to be on the IRS's bad side." Click here for more News and Features